My latest collection, I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories, debuted at AWP last year in Minneapolis. It marked the third time, in three tries, I’ve had a book debut at AWP, which makes AWP fun, exciting, busy, and exhausting. I wouldn’t have it other way. Minneapolis was the first time I saw my book, too, so I was pretty excited to experience its realization, smell the printer’s ink still fresh on the page.
The nice people at Curbside Splendor set up a reading for me, you know, to move some product. As I sat at their book fair, an enormous line of people waiting to get their books signed, I was transfixed: Kelly Link was signing at the table next to me—the line of people was for her, not me. A solid number of my friends came by, picked up a book, let me scribble something inside, but nothing like the traffic Kelly Link was experiencing. I love her—she’s fabulous—and I thank her, as the line peeled off, post-Link, toward the Curbside table, enabling me to leech off her fame for a few extra sales, a barnacle on her broadside. When that stopped working, I claimed to be Amber Sparks and signed a few copies of May We Shed These Human Bodies, a fact I am revealing to the world just now.
For the back half of my hour at the table, I was joined by Cyn Vargas, who also had a new Curbside book at AWP, On the Way, her debut collection of stories. I’d never met Cyn before, nor had I read her work, but there we were, side by side, hawking our wares. We pretended to be as many Curbside authors as we could—Cyn does a mean Todd Kaneko, so if you’re ever at a party with her, beg her to do it for everyone.
As fantastic as it is to have a new book, to sign that book for people, I found great pleasure in watching Cyn experience all of this for the first time. I’m planning to publish a dozen more books, give or take a dozen, and I don’t suspect the pure joy I feel at any book’s release will ever subside. But there’s nothing like the first book. I enjoyed watching Cyn react as someone she knew, or better yet, someone she didn’t know, stopped by the table, picked up her book, and handed it to her, asking for an inscription. Cyn glowed every time, her foot tapping, her hand shaking a bit as she dragged her pen across the page. It was nice to meet her, chat a bit, and later that summer, read with her a time or two in Chicago, hear her do her thing out loud. I’m proud that my press found such a talent, a voice that strengthens our stable, adding to the eclectic mix that makes up our catalogue.
Today’s post will be about the first story in On the Way, “Guate,” a story that has hung with me since I read it early yesterday. I got a good way’s into the book, but no story is as haunting as this lead-in, no story better represents Vargas’ voice.
“Guate” is about an American teen girl, Selma, who travels to Guatemala with her mother, who’d emigrated to the U.S. at about Selma’s age. This is Mom’s first trip back, and mother and daughter have an absolute blast together. They visit beaches, volcanos, and markets, and stay with Mom’s beloved Tía Blanca. Vargas takes care to describe Guatemala from the point of view of a person who’s never been, and it’s extremely effective, the reader discovering it at the same time. One might think Vargas has taken a trip like this herself, has seen a strange land from a stranger’s eye. I, the reader, felt like I was in Guatemala.
After a week, Selma’s mom runs out for some groceries, but doesn’t return—not after a few hours, not after a few weeks, not for months. Vargas had told us it was coming, too, as Selma states in the first paragraph, “I didn’t know it would be the last time I ever saw my mother or heard her voice. I wish we had never gone.” This type of direct foreshadowing only works when the reader forgets about it as they read on, falling into the story. When the foreshadowed thing happens, then, it’s still a surprise. It’s a risky endeavor, this technique, as a misstep could ruin it all. Vargas’ writing is effortless, though, and even though I was told Selma would never see her mother again, I was thinking what a nice trip this was, how I should have taken my own mother to Poland at some time, the trip of a lifetime (planning to bring her back). Vargas gambles by revealing the end, but it pays off.
Once Selma’s mother disappears, we remember that first paragraph, how she’s not coming back. Then the story has to sustain itself. What’s left in the aftermath of this tragedy is what the story is really about, what Vargas does with Selma, how Selma reacts, what she’s forced to do in the wake of such an awful reality. Vargas pulls it off, and I found myself moved like I rarely am, sympathizing for the poor girl, but not merely sympathizing with her. That’s a huge distinction.
“Guate” and the other stories I’ve read in On the Way certainly evoke the works of other Latin American writers, people like Sandra Cisneros and Juñot Díaz. I found myself comparing Selma to Yunior quite a few times, in fact, and was hoping for more Selma stories later in the book (they still might be there, where I haven’t gotten yet). Cyn Vargas has a ton of talent, can write the heck out of a story, and I’m glad I was there, could say I ran into her at the ground floor.